Tony Visconti Remembers Lou Reed - Rolling Stone
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Tony Visconti Remembers Lou Reed

‘Even his closest friends didn’t realize he was dying,’ producer says. ‘But he did’

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Lou Reed

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A few of days after the devastating news hit that Lou Reed died Sunday, David Bowie producer Tony Visconti got on the phone with “Rolling Stone” to share some memories of his friend. They first met during the “Transformer” sessions in 1972, and they formed a very tight friendship during the past decade or so in New York City, even attending the same tai chi class every Sunday. What follows is a very lightly edited version of his recollections. 

I first heard the Velvet Underground when the debut album came out in 1967, the one with the famous banana on the cover. Like everyone of my age, I was completely floored by the sound and the lyrics. Nobody had written lyrics like that. There was no sound like that. It was underground, and the only group I knew like that was the Fugs. 

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The Velvet Underground just blew me away. The link-up with Andy Warhol was just phenomenal. It was too good to be true, all these things happening at once. Ironically, I never saw them in concert. That’s probably because I was too poor to go to a concert. I was just a working musician living from hand to mouth

There was so much myth attached to the band. I heard if you peeled the banana off there was LSD under it. It had a lot of folklore within just weeks of release. I guess that you’d call it now a buzz band, but there was nothing like it in those days. Nobody was buzzing about any band until the Velvet Underground came around.

Lou Reed was singing about things that happened in the alternative lifestyle of America, which in those days was very prohibited. In those days, you couldn’t speak openly about these matters. It wasn’t long before that when I saw Lenny Bruce in a nightclub and I saw him get arrested. Lou, just a few years later, was singing about the kind of subject matter that Lenny Bruce was getting arrested for speaking about in public. 

I knew exactly what he was talking about on “Waiting for the Man.” Other people didn’t quite know who the man was. It was obviously a drug pusher, but it wasn’t common knowledge in those days. I was dabbling in heroin a bit and I was taking a lot of acid. I knew exactly what Lou was talking about. We were contemporaries in that lifestyle.

When I went to London and met David Bowie, he was a bigger Velvet Underground fan than I was. He was actually singing some of the Lou songs in his live sets. Lou was very influential in a sense that David covered his songs live and wrote songs that sounded a bit in that style. I was in David’s live band and we were playing them. 

David’s biggest homage to Lou was when he found Lou. He literally searched for him and found him and made Transformer. That is so wonderful. It was one of the most wonderful things to happen to the both of them at the time. I’m only vaguely away of Lou’s first solo album, before Transformer. He was hard to find, so all credit to David. I remember him talking about looking for Lou and hard it was to find him. 

I first met Lou during the making of Transformer. I was in London and David was dressed as Ziggy Stardust at the time, in his daytime life as well as the shows. He was producing Transformer and he asked me to pop in the studio to meet Lou. I think at the time, when Velvet Underground came out, I was in fear of Lou. I didn’t want to meet him. He was too awesome and intimidating, if his lyrics were anything to go by.

I went to Trident Studios in London where a lot of famous recordings were made. I worked with T. Rex there. David made Ziggy there. Queen made a bunch of their recordings there. I met Lou there and I think he was on heroin. He was just sitting in the corner on the floor kind of nodding off. I remember kneeling down and shaking his hand and saying “hello” and he just looked up and was all glazed over.

I wasn’t surprised at all that “Walk on the Wild Side” got so big. When I heard it I thought it was a smash hit. I never heard anything like it. What was funny is that he’s talking about transvestites and giving head and changing clothes on the bus, and they’re playing this for kids on BBC radio. I thought it was hilarious. Like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, we were getting away with murder. He was talking about things that were forbidden subjects. It is amazing to think about now, because many of the DJs over there are now in trouble for child pornography, but the lines about “giving head” went over their heads. 

He borrowed David’s sound for “Walk on the Wild Side.” David is very much responsible for that and anything else that came off that album. David had the hit song mentality, which Lou never really cared about in a big way. Lou always considered himself a very serious poet, a very serious artist. I don’t think that wealth was his goal, or worldwide popularity. He just wanted to do what he did. His output from that point on was extremely diverse. Like the Beatles, he kept changing styles. He experimented with a lot of forms of music that wasn’t’ very commercial. 

I didn’t see him again until the late 1980s/early 1990s. I moved back to New York from London and I started seeing Lou socially. I was still in awe of him. We had a mutual friend in Mick Rock, the photographer. Lou and Mick were always kind of seen together in those days. I’d see him occasionally and he would dismiss me and walk away. 

He was very difficult to get close to. He was well known as being a curmudgeon. He just didn’t take kindly to people in those days. I think he was overly protective of himself. He put the barriers up, socially. He was very hard to get close to. 

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But over the past 10 years, he became one of my best friends. I  used to study tai chi in London, which has been a mainstay of my whole life. When I was speaking casually to David Bowie about how it was hard to find a teacher as good as the one I had in London, he said, “Why don’t you speak to Lou? Lou studies tai chi.” I said, “OK, that’ll be interesting.” Now I felt that I could confront Lou face to face.

All I had to do was mention those two words: tai chi. Lou just opened up like a flower and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you were interested in that. I have a great teacher and his name is Master Ren Guang-Yi.” I signed up immediately after I saw Lou’s teacher. Lou started a year earlier with the same teacher. 

I had seen Lou hundreds of times in the past 10 years, mainly almost every Sunday in New York City at our Sunday class. We lived only four blocks away in the West Village. I would go over to his place and practice with him. We became very close friends.

We had people from all walks of life in our class, a banker, a plumber, a construction worker, a Japanese translator . . . all these varied people from all walks of life, and Lou was just one of us. Afterward sometimes as many of 12 of us went out for brunch right after class and Lou was right there sitting in the middle of it. It was wonderful. To know him on that level was just incredible. I can’t tell you how serious he was about it. He was one of the most serious people I know about studying some arcane subject like that.

It wasn’t just the tai chi they do in the park. The type we study has all the weaponry and all the fighting and wrestling and all that stuff. He took it to a very, very serious high level.

Lou was very social and went out a lot. He had a lot of very close friends, like Julian Schnabel and Richard Belzer from Law and Order. They were his very serious friends, and he saw David Bowie from time to time, and myself. I went over to Lou’s house quite a bit. We’d go to shows together and I’d see him quite a bit at gallery openings and the openings of Broadway shows. He didn’t just stay at home and do nothing. He was very active. 

I can’t understand why people would move to New York and not go out. Lou was a man about town. He’d even go around town and walk his dog. In my neighborhood, we have hundreds and hundreds of pedigree dogs. Lou would be out there, too, walking by the Hudson River. He’d be walking his dog all the time. I had friends that were walking their dogs that Lou wouldn’t normally talk to, but if they had a dog he’d stop and talk to them.  

We all knew he was sick. He was pretty open about it. He studied tai chi mainly to keep his strength up. There are recent photos I’ve seen on Facebook where he looks absolutely ripped. He has musculature that would be the envy of a 30-year-old. He was fighting liver disease for the longest time. I thought when he got the transplant it would buy him another five or 10 years, that’s why this is such a blow to me and everyone close to him. Even his very closest friends didn’t actually know he was dying, but he did. He knew.

It wasn’t the transplant that killed him. He had liver cancer and they thought at the time it was only in the liver. Viruses are so, so tiny and they can hide somewhere. Just a few cells can jump from the liver into another organ. That happens a lot. They didn’t detect it. It was undetected for months. He was cancer-free. That’s what the blood test shown.

In the past couple of months it just came back and took over. It was too late even though he got the liver of some young person. I think the cancer just spread to other parts of his body. He went very quickly. Last week he was back in Cleveland at the hospital. They said they did all they could and there was nothing left to do. He knew then it was over. Now I realize that. He went back to his house in Long Island and decided to live out his days. Even Lou thought he’d live a little longer than he did. 

I last saw him three weeks ago at a Mick Rock book signing at the CBGB place, the John Varvatos store. I wrote to Lou the night before and said, “Can you let me in?” His last e-mail to me, was, “I try.” It was a joke. Instead of “I’ll try” it was “I try.” There was nothing wrong with his grammar, believe me. He got me in and we were very close to the front. I waved to him. I took my son Morgan with me. We arrived early and got right to the front and Lou and I waved to each other. It was the last time I saw him.

Last night at tai chi we were very choked up. The class is very, very strict. It runs a certain way. But the teacher turned to us at the beginning and said, “Can we have a moment of silence for Lou?” He got very emotional and turned to the back of the room and turned up the music that Lou made for us. He mad special tai chi music that we trained to at every sessions. The teacher turned up the music so loud that it was rattling the windows. It was a whole minute with this synthesizer drone, a very deep note that Lou made just for tai chi. The windows rattled and we’re sitting there in the tai chi position, the tears welling up. When the minute was over we resumed class. It started out extremely depressing, but it got better and at the end we had an impromptu storytelling period. We shared our memories of Lou.

There were some people in the class that only knew Lou as their brother. They didn’t even know he was a rock star. That’s the kind of environment that he loved. Not many rock stars would be in that environment, but he was the quintessential New Yorker. He took advantage of everything. He was everywhere. Everywhere. 

In This Article: Lou Reed, Tony Visconti, Transformer


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